A woman stripped of the custody of her son amid allegedly false accusations of neglect by children’s social workers who worked for Los Angeles County was denied punitive damages Friday, but will still receive more than $3 million in compensatory damages.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about an hour before deciding against assessing punitive damages against social workers Kimberly Rogers and Susan Pender in a lawsuit filed by Rafaelina Duval.
The same panel on Thursday awarded Duval $2.94 million, plus $165,000 after finding in a separate verdict that she was the victim of discrimination.
Duval alleged that her child, identified in her court papers only as R.D., was taken from her without a warrant in 2010, even though no emergency existed. The jury also found that social workers Pender and Rogers acted with malice toward Duval, triggering the second phase to determine whether either of them should have to pay punitive damages.
The jury found that the county Department of Children and Family Services had “an official custom and/or practice of seizing children from their parents without a warrant” and failed “to enact an official policy or procedure when it should have done so.”
Asked after the verdicts whether she was pleased with the outcome of the case, Duval replied, “Yes and no. Yes, because they have been held accountable, but no, because I still don’t have custody of my child.”
Duval, 41, said she will continue to fight to bring her son home and to advocate for changes in the DCFS so the same thing does not happen to others in her situation.
Attorney Shawn McMillan, on behalf of Duval, told jurors that his client begged the social workers not to take her child, but her plea “fell on deaf ears.”
“Don’t give them more mercy than they gave her,” McMillan said in urging that punitive damages be assessed.
But defense attorney Tomas Guterres said the message of Thursday’s verdict was heard within the DCFS, as well as the county administration. He urged the jurors not to award any punitive damages, saying it could make social workers fear in the future that they had to get a warrant in every case, even if they knew children were being severely abused and time was of the essence to protect them.
Duval, who lived at the time in Los Angeles and now resides in Lake Forest in Orange County, filed the lawsuit against Los Angeles County and the social workers in August 2011. Her son was born in August 2008 and is now 8 years old.
McMillan said matters came to a head in November 2009 when Pender, her supervisor, Rogers, and a DCFS regional administrator filed a detention report that was prepared for a judge by another DCFS worker. McMillan said the report was mostly negative concerning Duval’s care of the boy and did not include favorable evidence favorable to the plaintiff as required by law.
A juvenile court judge awarded custody of the boy to his father and granted Duval visits with her son.
— City News Service